Two Asian student graduates at an Australian university in a file photo. Photo: Facebook

SYDNEY – Hundreds of Asian students from China, South and Southeast Asia are queuing for food handouts from charities in Australian cities after losing their part-time jobs to Covid-19 lockdowns.  

The government has told the 565,000 students to go home, but many are no longer able to get flights, have been locked out by their own countries after national borders were closed, or simply don’t have enough cash for tickets.

Some say they could find themselves homeless and on the streets without funds to pay their rents.  

Social distancing rules have forced universities to suspend all face-to-face classes, leaving thousands of students in limbo. Many were laid off weeks ago from their part-time work in hospitality industries and retail services.

“I am working a part-time job at a restaurant, but because of this situation my work shift has reduced, which is not enough for me to rent my house and other living expenses,” Pankaj Sarkar, a final-year student at the University of Wollongong in southern New South Wales, told Asia Times.

“My landlord said I have to pay my rent on time. My family could not send me any money because everything in my country was closed,” he said.

Foreign students are valued in normal times for their vital economic contribution — more than A$32 billion (US$20.3 billion) per year from fees and living costs — but are now seen as a liability by political leaders battling the spread of the virus.

Permanent residents who are laid off are receiving welfare checks, but there are no handouts for non-citizens, even though they pay the same taxes. The government’s message: if you can’t support yourself, you must leave Australia.

“Australia must focus on its citizens and its residents to ensure that we can maximise the economic supports that we have,” said Prime Minister Scott Morrison. The same rule applies to all other temporary visitors, but there are exemptions for medical students who can help out at hospitals.

Asian students in Brisbane before the plague. Photo: Facebook

Returning home is no longer an easy matter, as Australian airlines have cut nearly all of their international services, with few likely to resume before the end of the year. Other carriers withdrew from Australia’s skies and runways weeks ago.

“A large number of international students can’t actually go home,” Sydney lawyer Nick Hanna told the Special Broadcasting Service, which caters for minority groups. “They are literally trapped in Australia and if they don’t have some form of economic support, then they will be in dire straits.”

Scores of students blew their living allowances while trying to get to Australia in the first place after they were required to spend 14 days of quarantine in a third country — usually Thailand — before arriving.

They are now locked into tenancy agreements, have paid at least one term of tuition fees and often have other outstanding legal obligations. State governments will make it illegal to evict tenants during the Covid-19 crisis, but it is not clear whether temporary visitors will be protected.

Students’ families are often unable to send money because they have also suffered economic hardship from the virus or are isolated by lockdowns.

Daniela Maza, a 24-year-old foreign student who is studying in Brisbane, said students were pooling food, but had to make some difficult choices.  

“I’m about to finish my degree — do I pay my school or do I buy something to eat?” she said. “I’ve never been faced with a situation where I have to choose whether I pay for my rent or I pay for my food.

“If, one month ago, someone would have told me … you are going to be struggling to pay your bills, food and rent’, I wouldn’t believe it.”

Student groups are pushing for welfare support from the government, but Sarkar said he believed that citizens should have first access to funding.

“Rather than financial support from the government, they can announce some rules for affected international students like freeze rent for few months or a reduction of the university’s fees,” he said.

Chinese students pose during a graduation photo at Curtin University in Perth, Western Australia during happier times. Photo: AFP

“In this hard situation we still have to pay the huge amount of university fees, rent and other expenses. That’s hard for us and our family to bear.”

Universities are now offering financial aid, such as housing support and fee extensions, and some sacked workers are able to access pension funds. However, Hanna said much more help was needed, and quickly:

“There are a large number of international students who I’ve spoken to  who are literally, one, two, three weeks away from homelessness.”